Founded in 1952, by Irene Grandison Clarke and Joan Lawson, the National Dance Branch, as it was then called, focused on an in-depth study of folk dance.
This more specialised branch was much needed as during these post-war years there had been no body of knowledge for teachers to make an in-depth study of folk dance and very little opportunity for them to travel in order to gain primary source material. This had resulted in a lack of authenticity in much of what was being taught.
The first committee was chaired by Irene Grandison Clark and included Joan Lawson, Sheelagh Elliott-Clarke, Betty Hassell and Carol Moverley. Joan Lawson was a great traveller who visited many European countries, collecting a vast amount of material related to folk dance, music and costume. She was able to pioneer much of the work through her teaching at the Elliott Clarke School in Liverpool and it was at this time that she wrote European Folk Dance (pub. Pitman, 1953) which became the first key text for students of national dance.
In 1953 Helen Wingrave joined the Committee and she too made a great contribution to the development of the branch. Unlike Joan Lawson, whose particular interest lay in pure folk dance, Helen Wingrave was keen on using the steps of folk dance to choreograph solos, duets, trios and groups for theatrical settings such as dance performances and competitions. She had a great gift for choreographing dances in this way, many of which are still in the syllabus today.
The examinations were introduced over the first two years of the new branch’s existence. They consisted of three levels of what were then known as Major examinations – Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced; four levels of Grade examinations and Bronze, Silver and Gold Medal Tests at Junior and Senior levels. All the examinations were very well received by teachers and students alike and went on to be very popular.
The Major syllabus consisted mainly of folk dances chosen because they were still being performed in their country of origin. The syllabus also included lists of individual steps, figures and holds (ie the various ways of holding partners and other dancers in a group) for each country which also had to be studied together with details of style, music and costume. As well as being valuable information for the candidates, it was also extremely useful for teachers who wished to create their own dances for theatrical purposes. The Grade syllabus consisted of group dances and solos and the Medal Tests comprised solos only and were designed for students who were interested in focusing on solo performance but who may not have had the opportunity of working in a class situation. Apart from a few minor alterations and additions, this basic syllabus structure has remained the same throughout the branch’s existence.
In the early 1960s, Robert Harrold became a committee member and examiner. He worked very closely with Helen Wingrave and made an important and lasting contribution to the development of the branch through his teaching, writing and choreographing of many dances both for the syllabus and competitions.
In 1972, Helen Wingrave conducted the first overseas examinations which were held in New Zealand. There was great enthusiasm for the work which subsequently spread to other countries such as Canada, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Mexico and South Africa.
In 1977, Audrey Bambra (1917–2004) became Chair of the committee following the retirement of Irene Grandison Clark. This was quite a departure from the norm as she was not an ISTD teacher or examiner. She had been principal of Chelsea College of Physical Education in Eastbourne for many years but had an understanding of the ISTD through being a member of Council. Although she did not have a detailed knowledge of the ISTD national dance syllabus, she was extremely knowledgeable about folk dance in general and over the years had visited many folk festivals and countries where folk dance was still practised. This resulted in her book Teaching Folk Dancing (Batsford, 1972) co-written with Muriel Webster. She laid great stress on the in-depth study of the style of each country and arranged several courses delivered by specialists, which concentrated on one country only. She was an excellent Chair who was very clear thinking and who brought a very educational approach to the branch.
In 1985 Robert Harrold was elected Chair. This was also the first year of the Choreographic Competition in which there were cups awarded for the choreography of a solo and a duet. After a few years, this competition became the Grandison Clark Awards, in which the performance rather than the choreography was judged.
In 1986, Margaret Dixon-Phillip, another key contributor to the branch, joined the committee. She too travelled a great deal and, together with her husband Nigel Allenby Jaffé, produced several books on national dance which are invaluable sources of information for both teachers and students.
Another important development in the 1980s was the introduction of Folk and National Character streams in both the Grades and Major examinations, thus enabling teachers to make a choice of how they entered their candidates. A further development at this time was the introduction of Folk Dance
Studies. These are assessments in which candidates present traditional group dances chosen by the teacher together with a written, visual or practical project, in order to build up the required units for the various levels.
In 1993, the Scottish Dance Branch came under the umbrella of the National Dance Branch; it established a sub-committee which sent a representative to report at National meetings. This arrangement lasted for about eight years until there was a further decrease in Scottish examination entries, after which Council reluctantly decided to close the branch.
There is still a nucleus of interest in the National Dance Faculty, as it is now called, with a number of very enthusiastic and loyal followers. In accordance with the needs of the 21st century and government recognition, most of the examinations have been revised and streamlined by a very able team drawn from the committee, consisting of Heather Rees, Marion Roberts, Barbara Simons and Robina Smith.. The Grandison Clark Awards, which are held every two years, still attract a substantial number of high quality entries, and a teachers’ summer school continues to be offered annually. Although the Faculty, chaired by Jacqueline Ferguson since 2001, is not large, there are many teachers who choose to teach the work and find it to be an extremely useful addition to their timetables, as it offers their pupils an opportunity of working together and co-operating with each other in a skilled and very enjoyable dance activity. There are also a number of students, both in the
UK and overseas who still take the teaching qualifications, thus ensuring, for the foreseeable future, a continuation of the work. Dame Ninette de Valois DBE, formerly Patron of the National Dance Faculty, wrote in her foreword to European Folk Dance Series: The Netherlands (Allenby Jaffé, N & M, p.9) “Folk dance offers a wealth of material to choreographers, teachers and dancers and they in turn must understand its value and potential”. She concluded by saying “I should like to see every ballet school in the country have a weekly folk dance class in its curriculum”.
On a more general note, in today’s multicultural society National Dance has a particular relevance as, through the study of the various movement patterns, styles, historical and geographical backgrounds, it helps to enhance an understanding of other European cultures.